Assemble in the forest

Forest of Imagination, the event designed to showcase the creativity of the city, is celebrating its 10th year. This year the free event will take place at the Assembly Rooms and will run for a whole month, from 14 June – 14 July. Emma Clegg talks to Andrew Grant and Penny Hay about what’s in store…

Bath’s spectacular Assembly Rooms will be the venue for this year’s Forest of Imagination which is marking its 10-year anniversary. The National Trust, who own and manage the Assembly Rooms, this year invited Forest of Imagination to develop a unique event as part of the Trust’s transition plans for the world-famous building, while the charity finalises plans for the future and undertakes building work ahead of opening a Georgian experience in 2026.

Tom Boden, General Manager for the National Trust Bath Portfolio, explains why the two have a good alliance: “There is such a synergy between the National Trust aims and what Forest of Imagination cares about, in particular the importance of enabling nature connection. It feels like a great alignment for local partnership and we’re delighted to host this year’s event. The Trust also owns around 600 acres of countryside around Bath and we have a key role in championing the green setting and making it accessible to more people, which again feels strongly aligned to the ethos of Forest of Imagination.”

Entrance to Forest of Imagination 2023 by Morag Myerscough

Forest of Imagination, which this year runs for a month from 14 June to 14 July, will see the building reimagined as a focus for the community of Bath, as people are invited to ‘Assemble in the Forest’. This theme is inspired by the opportunity to link art, nature and the social life of the city into an experience that takes full advantage of the grand internal rooms and the distinctive outdoor spaces. Spaces inside and outside the Assembly Rooms will be transformed into a series of playful, nature-inspired art experiences, offering visitors the chance to immerse themselves in multi-sensory installations, soundscapes and sculptures; join artists’ workshops; and explore a whole host of creative and community projects from top local and international artists, designers and businesses.

The event is masterminded and managed by Grant Associates, House of Imagination, Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios and Bath Spa University, working alongside the creative, cultural and educational community of Bath. The idea is to celebrate the beauty and biodiversity of Bath and, as Forest of Imagination has done every year, to showcase the imagination of the community. It also provides an opportunity to shine a light on the importance of forests across the world and what they mean in Bath, especially in response to the climate emergency.

“We are inspired by the opportunity to link art, nature and the social life of the city into an experience that takes full advantage of the grand internal rooms and the distintive outdoor spaces,” says Forest co-founder and director of Grant Associates, Andrew Grant.

All around the world people use forests as places to find respite, either individually or together

The main entrance will be transformed into a welcome pavilion called Birdsong by artist Morag Myerscough, who is fascinated by how colour, pattern and words can change urban environments and people’s perceptions of spaces. A freestanding framed structure will sit in front of the historic building and it will be filled with scented planting, placards and activist messages with solar panels and weather vanes (see Morag’s visualisation opposite).

Having entered the building with the sensory scene established, visitors will then encounter a series of experiences in the corridor leading towards the Ballroom. As Andrew says, “We want to populate the key spaces on the ground floor with things that are going to make you think.”

If you are not thinking by the time you get to the Ballroom, the host of feathery grasses that will fill the room and the winding pathways through them may take you by surprise, creating a powerful counterpoint to the grand architecture of cornices, columns and elaborate chandeliers above.

“Bringing in living material to a place like this is not without its challenges,” says Andrew. “But it will be a transformative experience, so people will come here and see the room differently. There will also be audio recordings and devices for the children so they can engage with the installations.”

The Ballroom will also tell a story about a 250-year old tree that was cut down last year from the garden of Margaret Heffernan, entrepreneur and Professor of Practice at the University of Bath, which will be used in the space in different ways. Penny Hay, artist, educator and co-founder of Forest of Imagination, says, “We are keen to emphasise the relationship we have as humans with the non-human world. We are nature, nature is inside us and so we have an effect on nature. Our DNA is in the forest.”

The Grand Octagon space will tell a story about beavers, once extinct in Britain, but which are now thriving on the banks of the Avon and along Bathampton Meadows. “The central installation will be an attempt to make a beaver lodge beneath the chandelier – so there will be this organic, messy structure against this incredible symmetrical piece.” There will also be headsets for people to see virtual tours of the beaver enclosure at Holnicote Estate in Exmoor where the Trust has reintroduced beavers in a managed way. “Our challenge is to make this place messy,” says Andrew looking up at the magnificent soaring curves of the ceiling.

The Card Room will become the Documentation Room, providing an opportunity for the artists and creative professionals to document what they are doing with children, families and schools, so it will be like a live exhibition. There are plans for a rainforest in the background and an installation by local florists. Penny says, “Concepts like imagination and creativity can sometimes be tricky and by showing what it means we are inviting people to think about being imaginative. Our approach to learning is all about nature connection, imagination, creativity, wellbeing and belonging.”

The Tea Room will reuse the temporary gallery walls created for the Holburne’s Unlimited exhibition. This space will reflect the different aspects of Bath’s landscape. Visitors will discover the work of Bathscape, which is dedicated to exploring, understanding and restoring Bath’s Landscape; the National Trust’s presence in Bath; the Rainforest Concern charity, a global initiative that is based in Bath; engage with some of the familiar trees of Bath and with a history of Forest of Imagination, which each year re-imagines a familiar space in Bath to highlight the importance of nature and imagination in our lives.

Over the last 10 years, more than 60,000 visitors have attended Forest of Imagination and over 100,000 have interacted with the contemporary arts event online.

As always the work of many artists will be included in Forest of Imagination. One is Frances Gynn who produces immaculately detailed drawings of animals and then rubs them out in what she calls a Public Erasure, where observers get the real sense of an animal and a potential species being lost from the world. Another artist, Clare Day, will inhabit a quiet, dark space and will project an image of one of her ceramic moons on a wall – this is intended as a contemplative space. “This is a really beautiful, poignant work, reflecting on the concept that we all see the same moon. How it brings humanity together but also connects us strongly to nature,” says Penny.

The Rabbit Holes Collective will also be present, a group of artists exploring adaptive podcasting to create unique content and invite people to metaphorcally ‘fall down a rabbit hole’ to connect more deeply with nature. And harpist Kate Petty will be visiting at the weekends to add extra atmosphere from the Assembly Room balconies.

Outdoors in the North Garden younger visitors will be able to take part in workshops in the garden for messy clay and paint work or water play.

Over the last 10 years, more than 60,000 visitors have attended Forest of Imagination and over 100,000 have interacted with the contemporary arts event online. And every year around 20 local schools, five partner universities and 50 artists and creative professionals help grow new branches of the event.

This is an ambitious project that has been organised with vision and dedication by volunteers. Designed to take over the elegant Assembly Rooms of Bath, it will make us see the building in a novel way, inhabited by the natural forms of the environment with trees, meadows, beaver lodges and the moon. And the best bit? It’s free for everybody.

Forest of Imagination at the Assembly Rooms, 14 June–14 July. To find out more about the programme visit:

Main image: Assemble in the Forest by Perry Harris